Businesses of the future will be defined by technologies such as the Internet of Things, supercomputing, virtual reality, robotics and artificial intelligence. They form a critical part of so-called "Industry 4.0" and the rise of automation and big data in a wide variety of sectors.
Technological revolutions come and go. The first industrial era dawned in the 1700s when sophisticated mechanical systems emerged. Then came electricity and the rise of computers. The fourth such era is all about automation, and machines that could one day compete with humans in virtually all aspects of the workplace.
Many are hailing the Fourth Industrial Revolution as a unique opportunity for businesses. Last year, a UK government-commissioned review revealed that Britain's manufacturing sector alone could generate £455 billion and create tens of thousands of jobs as a result of connected technology.
The question is, though, how can firms realize this opportunity and make the most out of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Firms are constantly told that they need to invest in the latest technologies in order survive these great changes. But here are ways in which they can actually thrive, as well.
The importance of cloud
Getting to grips with IoT is crucial for companies wanting to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In order to get the most out of today's increasingly connected world, businesses must prepare for the rise of technologies like artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. Jon Wrennall, chief technology officer of software solutions provider Advanced
, believes that business leaders can ready themselves by implementing a coherent cloud strategy. This way, firms will have the foundations for Industry 4.0 technology.
"Adopting a cloud-first strategy is fundamental to helping drive Industry 4.0 forward. The cloud can refine how organisations manage virtually all of their operations, from enterprise resource planning (ERP) and financial management through to data analytics and workforce training. Simply put, it can help organisations drive efficiencies, manage costs and grow, says Wrennall.
Collaboration is a must
Making the most of the cloud is vital, so cross-collaboration between businesses and vendors is must.
Unfortunately, though, many firms are currently neglecting the importance of cloud computing. To fix this, Wrennall says there needs to be more collaboration between businesses and vendors. "While it's true the cloud is already helping enterprises to innovate and increase their competitiveness, there are still many yet to make the leap. Our research shows that just 33% of organisations admit to being experienced in the cloud and 37% have only recently launched cloud computing projects for the first time," he tells us.
"If the cloud is to become the backbone of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which I believe it needs to be, expert third-party providers need to improve confidence among late digital adopters and educate them on the specific benefits of the cloud. Ultimately, it's about industry collaboration and embracing technology to ensuring every business is fit for future success."
Tech has its limits
AI can do incredible things, but firms need to remember human intelligence still comes out on top in most situations.
Big industry will benefit greatly from the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the coming years. Peter Dilley, head of manufacturing at Shoreham-based engineering business Cox Powertrain
certainly agrees with this sentiment. However, he believes that firms should be mindful that many of these technologies are still in the early stages and should continue to value human intelligence. He talks about challenges with AI, in particular.
"The Fourth Industrial Revolution promises a fusion of technologies across the physical, digital and biological spheres. It's an exciting prospect. However, the human remains the driving intelligence. Robotics have already changed the manufacturing industry; however, AI requires further development before we see wide-scale deployment," he says.
"There's a spectrum of 'intelligence' that could be brought into manufacturing but we're still a long way away from technology replacing the human in manufacturing. Sensors can be used, for example, to feedback data about any defective part on a production line, prompting the computer to issue a command to remove the defective part from the line and order a replacement."
Where artificial intelligence is concerned, Dilley tells us that businesses are better placed using the technology for analysis purposes. "But that's a pre-programmed process rather than anything uniquely intelligent. Repeatability and adherence to process are key. From this perspective, the application of robotics is obvious, but questions the use of AI. The logical application for AI would be within simulation and analysis," he says.
Agility will be important
Adapting to change and willingness to accept new technologies and process will drive Industry 4.0 forward.
Businesses can unlock a great deal of potential through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but these new technologies will introduce new challenges. Primarily, companies will have to ensure their staff have the right skills to be able to operate and work alongside technologies such as AI and IoT. Kieron McCann, strategy director at technology consultancy Cognifide
, says they'll need to become more "agile."
"The biggest challenge for traditional manufacturers is to change their culture to adapt to the new reality of Industry 4.0. In short, it comes down to agility. It's common for manufacturers and engineering-led organisations to want to invent everything in-house. This can lead to long lead times and inflexible planning cycles. This culture can permeate the entire organisation which is often oriented around production cycles and product launches, he says.
The new reality is that businesses need to be really clear about where they add genuine value, everywhere else they need to think about how they can quickly integrate other capabilities and then iterate. Everything will involve software, and this software will be powered by data, which in turn will be more and more integrated with a wider ecosystem. Agile working, iteration and continual improvement will become the de facto way of working."
As McCann explains, the Industry 4.0 will impact businesses operating in a plethora of sectors. But they need to be prepared in order to reap the rewards. "We are seeing entire industries transform, not just individual companies. Vehicle manufacturing in particular is undergoing a massive change. New technologies such as connected vehicles and autonomous vehicles are causing vehicle manufacturers to reconsider their entire business models. Ford's launch of FordPass [an app to help with parking, car maintenance and more] is clear evidence that Ford is redefining itself as a mobility provider rather than a car manufacturer," he adds.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is an exciting prospect for many businesses working across different sectors, but it's daunting at the same time. It's clear that if companies want to benefit from technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, then they need to begin laying the foundations now.
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